Telluride Theatre: “Hands on a Hardbody,” A Review

Telluride Theatre: “Hands on a Hardbody,” A Review

Telluride Theatre presents “Hands on Hardbody,” with book by Doug Wright; music by Trey Anastasio (of PHISH) and Amanda Green; lyrics Amanda Green. “Hands on Hardbody” runs March 3- March 6 & March 10- March 13. Thursday through Saturdays show at 8 p.m.; Sundays are matinees at 4 p.m. Tickets are $25 (adults) and $15 (students under 18) for all performances. Recommended for ages 12+ (some strong language is used). Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 970-708-3934.


Quick. What is the first word comes to mind that rhymes with “truck”?

If you are a denizen of Longview, Texas – or come from almost anywhere is the Lone Star State – the correct answer would be “luck.”

Red Truck

But it takes a whole lot more than luck to win the truck in question in “Hands on a Hardbody: The Musical,” a $22,000 fire-engine red “hardbody” pickup and universal metaphor (like all cars) for fulfiller of dreams, fixer of tattered self-esteem, economic security, independence, solidity, and masculinity.

It takes pluck and the kind of true grit born of the twin drivers of desperation and desire that burn deep in the hearts of the down-on-their-luck guys and gals for whom the Japanese-made vehicle represents a new lease on life – and the Holy Grail: the American Dream.

And it takes talent to transform that motley crew, all cultural clichés of some stripe, into believable and affecting human beings we can relate to and cheer for in Telluride Theatres adaptation of the 2013 Broadway com-dram, up for two weekends at Telluride’s Palm Theatre (through Sunday, March 13).


Hands On...


“Hardbody” is based on S.R. Bindler’s 1997 documentary based on the true story of a promotional stunt orchestrated back in 1992 by Jack Long Nissan in which contenders were picked at random from a pool of entrants to compete for the rig. The objective was to stay upright through days of broiling sun and endless nights with one gloved hand planted on the prize for as long as possible before succumbing to fatigue, buckled knees or delusional rants.

And nobody knew how long that might be.

But here’s what we do know: Telluride Theatre’s “Hardbody” is a heartfelt, gripping, sad, funny, tuneful (music co-written with Amanda Green by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio)  – soulful blues, twangy country-western, rousing gospel, Broadway belting –  production featuring a tight, fully committed ensemble cast that is moving when delivering what unrolls as a collection of tender, hard-luck stories from the annals of America’s heartland.

This ode to the unsung and unseen is as good as it gets because, once again, of an abundantly talented cast and crew amassed by director Sasha Sullivan, whose instincts for casting never fail. What’s more, Sasha’s insights into the musical’s characters bring out the most (and best) from her ensemble with the least amount of effort: in other words, she gives each actor just enough rope to sell their story, but never allows them cross the line into treacly melodrama.

The ostensible hero, JD Drew, is played with hangdog appeal by Sam Burgess, a role performed on Broadway by former Telluride local and superstar Keith Carradine. An oil rig worker forced into retirement by an injury, JD is the oldest competitor in the race. He is supported by his loving wife played by the beautiful Pam Sante with quiet reserve, grace, and warmth.

“Hardbody’s” ostensible villain is Benny Perkins, the most memorably outspoken subject of Bindler’s doc, a former contest winner and the guy we love to hate. Benny is James Van Hooser, who gets to take a walk on the slimy, racist side and strut his stuff with “Hunt the Big Dog.” James is Telluride’s new Jeb Berrier – only he has better pipes.

Also in the mix are two young contestants, who spark a romance and harmonize beautifully. They are portrayed with determination and conviction by the charming duo of Kelli (Jessica Hafich), a pretty and pretty frustrated UPS drone, and Greg (Dino Ruggeri), out of work – and hope – until he meets Kelli.

Niko Pantovich-Gonzalez is Jesus Pena, pitch-perfect as a misunderstood Mexican-American veterinary student looking to win the truck so he can sell it for tuition fees. On opening night, the intake of breath was audible when Niko sang Jesus’s lament “Born in Laredo.”

Then there is Sue Knechtel, (who thankfully has returned to town – and our stage) – playing a tooth-compromised, feisty, no-fuss, no-frills tough old bird named Janis with unedited enthusiasm and aplomb. Her cheerleading hubby Don is an equally energetic, righteously indignant Bob Saunders. Their duet, “It’s A Fix,” had the house in stitches.

Will Evans is terrific as a cocky (but sweet) black dude named Ronald, who believes that an all-Snickers diet is the way to win. His “My Problem Right Here” is soulful and groovy. Will’s so cool, he’s hot.

Talented Telluride Theatre returnee, Shaun Greager, is rock solid, managing to be both poignant and tough as Chris, a buff war vet straight out of the Marines and suffering from survivor’s guilt.

We heard Suzanne Cheavens’s voice, but wondered where it was coming from. We survey the crew lashed to vehicle for her face, but don’t see her face. The mustached radio announcer Frank Nugent? Couldn’t be. Was. Convincing? Yup. Brave? Funny? Ditto. (So good to see Suzanne in whatever incarnation back on stage.)

Telluride Theatre regular Caroline Grace Moore in another shape-shifting, seamless performance. Her long hair was shorn into a prim and proper bob to suit the role of determined, impassioned, evangelical Christian, Norma Valverde, presented in this straight production without an ounce of snark or condescension. Norma’s infectious, hysterical laughter in one scene lifts the show higher. And in her, well, divine voice, Caroline Grace belts the rousing “The Joy of the Lord.” More please.

Carlin Power is Mike Ferris, the beleaguered, somewhat smarmy and lascivious Nissan dealer. His partner is Cindy Barnes, played by Brie Wolfe, a Telluride Theatre newbie. Cindy is a very sexy, somewhat racist blonde, all in a tizzy about keeping the contest, a last-ditch effort to save the business, on the up and up. Sparks fly when the two are in the office together – and not the good kind.

Newcomer Brent Wolfe (Brie’s real-life hubby) is Doctor Stokes, in a promising cameo.

Then there is Cat Lee (We Can Never Get Enough of Her) Covert, another Telluride Theatre star, who returns to the stage to play bombshell and flirt Heather, willing to do almost anything to win the truck. (See lascivious car dealer.) Her “Burn That Bridge” is one the show’s hottest numbers.

The irrepressible Cat is also the show’s choreographer, no small challenge given the omnipresent truck and the demands of the contest, still, she manages to inject lots of motion into the production – before contestants start disengaging from the vehicle due to physical and mental exhaustion.

And while we are on the subject of support, as good as she is, Sasha cannot not and does not function in a vacuum. Her success is tied to the efforts of Cat; costume designer Melissa Trn; minimalist sets and lighting designer Erika Bush; sound designer Dean Rolley; and vocal direction, Anna Robinson.

Also, “Hardbody” would have been fallen flat without the wonderful, tight band: director Ethan Hale, plus Robinson, Sean Mahoney, Jeffrey Miller, and A.J. Rekdahl.

“Hands on a Hardbody” is often likened to dramas (theater and film) about down-and-out competitors hoping for a break: “A Chorus Line” and its “God, I hope I get it” hoofers; “The Full Monty,” with its stripteasing unemployed steel workers; and most of all, Depression-era marathon dance contests, dark diversion during The Great Depression, as depicted in the 1969 phenom, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

“Hands on a Hardbody” is a musical very much of the moment, giving voice as it does to invisible Americans, ordinary people facing extraordinary struggles: financial woes, healthcare challenges, immigrant stigma, PTSD, marital ennui.

These are the people who are out of work or, if employed, are paid Walmart-level wages. Their 401(k)s have tanked; their meager savings have crashed and burned.

Though we don’t really know them – though some work in Telluride’s service economy – we know of them – and they are certainly making their presence felt during this election year.

Janis’ and Don’s “It’s A Fix” breaks the fourth wall and infiltrates headlines, aptly summing up how Don and Janis and the rest of the crowd from small-town America feel about The Establishment and the lucky few (top government officials, bankers, tech billionaires, etc.) who make – and wantonly break – the rules, doing whatever works to support their agendas.

Telluride Theatre’s “Hardbody” is the stuff of reality TV, of today’s political scene. We feel for these colorful characters; applaud their courage and moxie and the unpretentious integrity of the material.

“Hardbody” is engaging, all-American and winning.

A great ride.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.